Capitals’ Michal Neuvirth steals the show from Rangers and goalie Henrik Lundqvist in NHL playoffs

April 16, 2011

Much of the discussion prior to the Capitals-Rangers first-round matchup centered on how a certain New York netminder could directly influence the outcome. Two games into this low-scoring series, though, it seems the focus was on the wrong goalie.

The showstopper has been Washington rookie Michal Neuvirth, not Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers’ two-time all-star. With a 2-0 shutout Friday, Neuvirth became the first goalie in franchise history to yield a total of one goal in consecutive games to open a playoff series. He’s stopped 46 of the first 47 shots to go along with a .979 save percentage and 0.43 goals against average.

In the weeks leading up to the playoffs, it was difficult to not be skeptical when Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau repeatedly professed his unwavering confidence in Neuvirth.

Yes, Neuvirth had an impressive regular season. And yes, he carried the minor league Bears to a second straight American Hockey League title last June.

But the 23-year-old had never started a playoff game in the NHL, and there was no guarantee he would succeed in the most pressure-packed environment the sport has to offer.

At times in Games 1 and 2, it was almost impossible to believe that Neuvirth hasn’t done this before. He deflected low shots harmlessly into the corner. He snatched high shots from midair with a cat-quick glove hand, or smothered them against his chest protector. Not once did he look in over his head, even when the Rangers tried their best to fluster him in the third period.

It’s a major departure from the recent postseasons, each of which began with Jose Theodore getting the nod for Game 1, then getting a quick hook after (or two shots into) another shaky outing. Even after making a switch, there always seemed to be a distinct possibility that Boudreau would reconsider his goaltender.

“I have to believe that Neuvy is our guy. It’s not a decision we have to make at this time,” Boudreau said Saturday before adding with a chuckle, “We’ve had to make it a lot in the past few years.”

Because of that newfound certainty — and Neuvirth’s steady play — there’s a palpable feeling of calm and confidence around the Capitals as they head to New York for Game 3 on Sunday afternoon. These days, there’s the sense that the “hot goalie” plays for them, not the opposing team.

“You know you can make a mistake and there’s a good chance that your mistake will be covered by the goaltender,” Boudreau said. “ In other situations — teams that I’ve played on — when there’s no belief in the goaltender, you know you have to play so safe, and you can’t make a mistake or it’s in your net.”

Mike Knuble added: “It’s calming. You’re not sitting on the bench holding your breath. You just expect him to make the saves.”

As good as Neuvirth has been, there’s no doubt that he’s been aided by the Capitals’ improved team defense. In Game 2, only eight of the Rangers’ 22 shots came from inside 25 feet, and there were only two odd-man rushes.

“They are making my job a lot easier,” Neuvirth said. “It’s been a great defensive effort. We’ve been blocking a lot of shots. I’m facing a lot of shots from the outside.”

That said, when Neuvirth needed to make a big stop Friday, he was right there waiting for it. Rangers center Erik Christensen sent a cross-ice pass through three players right onto the stick of the Marian Gaborik, New York’s most dangerous player. Neuvirth slid across and absorbed the one-timer in his pads with nine minutes left to play.

It was his best save of the series. It also shouldn’t come as a surprise, given how much he has matured in recent years.

When Neuvirth came to his first training camp under Boudreau — in 2008 — the Czech didn’t leave the best impression. The talent was there. The focus in practice, though, needed to be better.

Now it’s all coming together at the right time.

After Saturday’s brief session, Neuvirth stayed out on the ice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex after many of the team’s top players had retired to the dressing room. For the first five minutes, he worked on directing stick saves into the corner.

As more of his teammates left the ice, Neuvirth stayed on to work on his lateral movement. Goaltending coach Arturs Irbe and assistant coach Bob Woods alternated firing shots at him from opposite circles, just a split second apart. They repeated the exercise at least two dozen times, and he stopped almost all of those, too.

“He likes to work on that,” Irbe said. “We do it on a daily basis, because the strength of a goaltender is in repetition, facing those situations in practice. So when he gets into games, it’s automatic.”

Automatic. Superb. Unflappable. Pick your adjective. They’re all apropos right now.

“He’s one of those individuals in sports who thrives on challenge,” Irbe said. “The bigger the challenge, the more excited he gets.

“But,” he added, “it doesn’t show.”

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